Knights in The Big Sleep symbolize private detective Philip Marlowe himself, and come to specifically reflect his growing sense of powerlessness to combat the immorality around him. Marlowe is often referred to by other characters as a “soldier,” as he is a hired man with a mission. As Marlowe walks into the home of his client, General Sternwood, for the first time, Marlowe notices a stained-glass window featuring a knight attempting to free a tied up “damsel” in distress. Marlowe thinks to himself that he wants to jump into the scene to help the knight, as the knight does not seem to be making any progress. This reveals Marlowe’s moral compass and desire to help those in need.
A notable turning point is when Marlowe looks despondently at the chessboard in his apartment after being visited by Carmen Sternwood. Playing chess by himself, Marlowe reverses a move he makes with a knight, commenting, “Knights had no meaning in this game.” Marlowe thinks knights, like himself, are not powerful or influential enough to swing the game—in his case, the game of life and death playing out in 1930s L.A. In keeping with this pessimism, at the end of the novel Marlowe spots the same glass panel in Sternwood’s home and notes that the knight “still wasn’t getting anywhere.” Upon this second viewing, Marlowe quietly accepts the knight’s failure, with no suggestion that he wishes to intervene. Despite all of the mysteries the detective has solved and lies he has uncovered, then, Marlowe does not feel that he is actually effecting positive change in this seedy world, or even improving his own immediate situation.
Knights Quotes in The Big Sleep
Over the entrance doors … there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair … I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.
“General Sternwood’s a rich man,” I said. “He’s an old friend of the D.A.’s father. If he wants to hire a fulltime boy to run errands for him, that’s no reflection on the police. It’s just a luxury he is able to afford himself.”
I wish old Sternwood would hire himself a soldier like you on a straight salary, to keep those girls of his home at least a few nights a week.
I looked down at the chessboard. The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights.
The knight in the stained-glass window still wasn’t getting anywhere untying the naked damsel from the tree.